Monday, March 14, 2016

Something of a reply (to two blog posts)

Sometime back, a friend of mine, who isn’t exactly cosy with the ethics (or the lack thereof) among bloggers, had this to say about commentators parading as analysts: “They present opinion as fact.” To me that sums up everything that can be said about the blogosphere in Sri Lanka, not because it makes evident the major deficiencies of ideologues parading as journalists but because it makes us think of how this profession has been bandied, frilled, and sometimes uprooted by those who (genuinely) confuse opinion for fact.

That was then. Since that time I’ve questioned myself about the inclusion of opinion in articles which are touted as factual (when they are not) and have come to the conclusion that the writer writes while the reader reads (so, for instance, the writer is not required to read the reader’s comment). The reader has discretion. So does the writer. Both are tied or at least used to be tied together by this mutual freedom which the one accorded to the other.

In this universe we refer to as a blogosphere, however, we have the good, the bad, and the mediocre. In my opinion (yes, this is an opinion piece, don’t get that wrong) the latter of these three are just about the guiltiest of perpetuating the kind of intellectual glut I alluded to above, because THAT’s the group which dabbles in speculation while attempting to write facts.

Two blog posts caught my attention this year, in this regard: Vichakshana Arangala’s piece on Ananda College, and Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s piece on Big Matches. I don’t think either of them was (that) mediocre, but that doesn’t help matters. Not one bit.

There’s a world between these two articles. The first (characteristically titled “Ananda College: A Breeding Ground for Racism, and a Threat to Peace, Tolerance, and Secularism”) caught my attention at once because it was obviously written (and the writer, Vichakshana Arangala, admits this) as an affirmation of former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s hot-headed speech against what she called “Sinhala Buddhist schools”.

The second was more nuanced, less direct, but certainly as opinionated. I admit Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s piece on Big Matches (“What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You”) caught my attention more for the themes she selected for discussion than how she discussed them. Her writing was to the point and unapologetic, which is why, over these past few months, I’ve come to appreciate her articles (especially her political articles).

But I digress.

Vichakshana (who describes himself as an “Ex-Buddhist Atheist”) extrapolated more, I admit. He has since taken his post down (and made his blog private), but fortunately I remember sections of it well. The entire thrust of that article amounted to portraying a) Colonel Henry Steel Olcott as a kind of Western agent who castrated Buddhism, b) Ananda College as a repository of Sinhala Buddhist, anti-minoritarian chauvinism, and c) his school-mates there as paranoid, extremist, murderous, and basically every other trait that could justify his paranoia.

The problem with Vichakshana’s piece is that he generalises while trying to make us believe that he doesn’t. Let me be clearer: he makes us believe that the specificity of what happened to him takes on a general character, when it does not. In other words, he commits that classic mistake bloggers and op-ed columnists commit again and again: de-legitimising the wrongfulness of the social ill they condemn by ranting and raving and indulging in wild extrapolations (I couldn’t help raising my eyebrow, for instance, when he wrote that “Anandhism” – a term I have not come across before – was comparable to Tamil schools promoting Prabhakaran, not least because I am yet to come across a Buddhist equivalent of Prabhakaran, literally at least, from the past 50 years).

I have great respect for those who think outside the norm, but there are limits, and those limits are framed not by outsiders but by those who seek to defy convention. Simply put, Vichakshana commits the same mistake others of his calibre do: rationalising paranoia, opinion, and specific events in terms of some conspiracy which (he feels) brainwashes those he opposes. This lends little credence to what he’s trying to say.

But there was one thing Vichakshana didn’t do, and that’s going on a tangent. Thisuri Wanniarachchi did just that.

Thisuri began writing of fraternities between popular schools in this country and then decided to talk of the objectification of female students a la “Big Match Season” and the racism inculcated by Ananda College at THEIR Big Match (of all things)! Unlike Vichakshana’s assertions however, I was jarred by what Thisuri actually wrote. With Vichakshana the problem was with the manner of his presentation. With Thisuri the problem was with WHAT she presented.

I know the usual reply she got to her article: that she was a “Feminazi”, that she couldn’t enjoy her school-life, that she was too “elitist” to enjoy the beer-drinking, socialising, shouting, whistling, and hooting culture of popular schools in Colombo. What these did was to reinforce the image of students from these schools that she had painted: unable to contain criticism and prone to wild outbursts. I don’t think you can blame anyone for thinking that the reactions she got echoed much of what she wrote about those who reacted to her post.

I don’t claim to be a cricket fan (I’m not) and I won’t comment on anything connected with the Big Match. All I know is that at one point her article reeked of the same kind of opinionated biases which two bloggers (Dilshan Senaratne and Ravindu Ariyawansa) took on and exposed. For example: her notion that in the USA only elite Universities organise anything comparable to a Big Match was only half-true and beside the point she herself was trying to make.

The most common quasi-journalistic fallacy is mistaking the particular with the general, and in her article Thisuri effectively conflates Sinhala Buddhists with extremists (I quote: “The Sinhala-Buddhist centric schools conveniently forgot to teach their kids that racism is a reflection of one’s lack of education”). This was admittedly more sober than Vichakshana’s piece, but again, extrapolation has its limits. When those limits are breached under the guise of analysis, hell tends to (metaphorically) break lose. While I don’t agree with much of the comments her article provoked, hence, there was reason and wit in Dilshan’s and Ravindu’s “replies”.

I don’t pretend to know things that I don’t. I don’t know the first thing about cricket and my guess is that I shouldn’t talk about a particular topic unless I’ve “been there, done that”. As Dilshan correctly points out, all it takes is the ability to string two words together and voila! – You’ve got your widely shared, widely circulated op-ed “masterpiece”. The way he unveiled the fatal contradiction in Thisuri’s article – that by railing against the fraternal elitism of the schools she picked on, she used an elite society she’s familiar (the United States) with to provide a point of reference – was a classic on the art of counterargument.

So, to sum up the arguments against both these writers: schools aren’t older than Universities here, people feel justifiably proud of schools because they spent 12 to 14 years there, that is not a sign of immaturity, dressing up as women is probably not equivalent to being biased against transgender people, “Sinhala Buddhist schools” aren’t necessarily bigoted at the outset, students of a particular school DO NOT ALWAYS reflect the values the school espouses, and wild extrapolations paraded as factual analysis help neither the writer nor the reader.

Don’t get me wrong. Assault is terrible. Being drawn out forcibly and interrogated for being an atheist and anti-Buddhist is terrible. And normalising both of these is terrible. They should be called out and they should be condemned. I believe that they are.

But miracles don’t happen overnight. My guess is they never will. That’s where social media plays a role (I think the boy from Kuliyapitiya proved this well), and that’s where reasoned, proportionate judgment will prevail over opinionated bias and prejudice. It wasn’t merely opinion which got that little boy a spot in Trinity College, after all. It was facts. And analysis. Those who ended up calling the villagers of Kuliyapitiya idiots and bumpkins got the boy nowhere, let us not forget.

Whether we like it or not, hence, winning both sides of a debate isn’t as simple as ranting and raving and extrapolating. There’s more that needs to be done. Much more.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com